Old Diaspora Meets New: Edmonton Choir Gets Emotional Welcome in Spain and Portugal

Credit UMCE Laloret to Christine Teterenko

Marco Levytsky, NPUN Western Bureau.

It was an emotional roller coaster ride as members of one of the oldest, met members of one of the youngest Ukrainian Diasporas, during the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton’s tour of Spain and Portugal, July 8 – 24.

“The tour was fantastic and extremely successful — our performances were extremely well received by audiences, and our tours of various unique cities and towns and sites were unforgettable,” said UMCE Conductor Orest Soltykevych.

“Our members can rest assured that they made a real and profound difference in the lives of the people present in churches we sang the liturgies in and at our performances afterwards. Many were deeply moved by our singing, and by the fact that three or four or even five generations later, we still sing our Ukrainian choral music — and enjoy doing it,” Soltykevych added.

“It was very uplifting and gratifying to bring our song to the Ukrainians working and living in Spain and Portugal,” echoed UMCE Co-President and Chair of the UMCE 2017 Tour Committee Bill Lebedovich.

“Like our forefathers who came to Canada 125 years ago, they are forging a new path for themselves and their families. Although their hardships are not on the same physical level as our forefathers, they are creating a new life and hope for themselves. To see people overcome with emotion during our performances and liturgies, it is gratifying to help them understand that being third and fourth generation in a foreign land does not mean one needs to give up one’s heritage and cultural roots. We received such a warm and emotional welcome in every place we performed and that was truly the best part of the tour and the reason we went,” he added.

The first Liturgy the choir performed was at the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Joseph and St. Monica in Barcelona, Spain. The reaction was tremendous from the large congregation, many of whom were temporary workers from Ukraine. In thanking the choir, Fr. Serhij Znak, the Pastor of the parish stressed the connections with the home country interspersing his comments several times with “Слава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine). The choir performed three numbers following the service and an impromptu sing-a-long was held in front of the church.

From Barcelona, the choir proceeded to Lloret de Mar on the Costa Brava of the Mediterranean Sea, where they participated in the Golden Voices of Barcelona competition and won second place in two categories.

Here too there was a large Ukrainian presence – among the hotel staff and guests many of whom joined the choir for another impromptu sing-a-long, this time by the hotel pool with bayan accompaniment by Semen Kostyuk.

UMCE gave one more performance at the historic Benedictine Monastery at Montserrat, before returning to Barcelona.

The next public appearance of UMCE was at the Ukrainian Orthodox Parish of Sts Andrew and Dmytro in Madrid on July 16, where they sang responses at the Divine Liturgy and held a brief concert afterwards. Writing for the website “Українці в Іспанії” (Ukrainians in Spain), journalist Liubomyr Kalynets stated:

“The first resonant lines, sung by the choir from Canada, elicited a moving reaction from the many praying who gathered in the shrine. For some, ants crawled up the spine, for others, their eyes glittered with a strange glimmer, some even straightened out their shoulders. And all this because it had been a very long time since such magnificent and beautiful song, which accompanied the divine service, had been heard in Madrid and area. Surely, the Almighty Himself heard these divine voices and admired them with delight.”

He continued to describe how tears rolled down some faces and Pastor Konstantyn Truchak himself looked deeply moved.

Moving onwards to Portugal, the choir performed a special concert in Porto on July 19.

Nataliya Khmil, head of the Association ”Amadze” (Friendship), which organized it, said the evening was “a holiday for the soul” which “returned us in our hearts to Ukraine, to the native fatherland, to our native ancestral home, to the native and dear places of our hearts.”

Her organization helps over 3,000 immigrants of all nationalities, but Ukrainians constitute 60 per cent of the membership. They run three Saturday and Sunday schools for over 250 pupils, and a folkloric ensemble which includes a choir and dance groups.

During conversations with UMCE members, Ukrainians in Spain and Portugal were quite amazed to learn Alberta has government-funded regular daily bilingual schools where half the instruction is English and half in Ukrainian.

The last public appearance of the choir was at the Ukrainian Orthodox Parish of Our Lady of Oliviera in Lisbon.

“We are all in rapture over your beautiful singing. Myself personally, and the whole community pray, and will bring forward thankful prayers for all of you,” Fr. Ihor Nevinsky, told New Pathway-Ukrainian News.

Ukrainians started arriving in Spain and Portugal in the late 1990s in an effort to find work as economic conditions in Ukraine produced great hardship.

At first, they came as illegal immigrants, but were legalized in Spain in 2001 and again in 2003. Under a new law, anyone who has resided in Spain for three years has the right to apply for permanent resident status. There are approximately 200,000 known Ukrainians in Spain, of which about 20,000 live in Madrid. The number of illegals is not known.

In Portugal too, Ukrainian immigrants initially came illegally, but later received permanent residency status.

Ukrainians constitute the second-largest foreign community residing in Portugal, with 44,074 residents in 2012, and 52,293 in 2009 according to the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF). Only the Brazilian immigrant community is larger.

Although most of them work in low-paying jobs, their level of education is much higher than the native Portuguese, as is their level of employment. Many are now beginning to advance into higher-level jobs.

With a relatively low frequency of performances and rehearsals for an over two-week tour, members of the choir had ample time for sightseeing in Barcelona, Zaragoza, Salamanca, Madrid (all in Spain) and Aveiro, Porto, Coimra and Lisbon in Portugal. Several members also participated in a side pilgrimage to Fatima during their Lisbon stay.

As well the choir was wined and dined quite elegantly at dinners and receptions arranged by the tour organizers and by the Ukrainian community itself.

But it was that link between the old and new Diasporas, between immigrants just recently come from Ukraine, and multi-generational Canadians of Ukrainian origin who have maintained their traditions for over 125 years, that proved to be the defining feature.

“It was a very emotional and touching experience. Having our Canadian diaspora share our mutual love of Ukrainian music. Seeing the eyes of our fellow countrymen shed tears of joy as we the Ukrainian Male Chorus of Edmonton sing the music we all remember and love,” said Greg Yewchuk Bass Section Captain.

“What an experience, I’ll never forget the joy and their sincere appreciation of what we bring to these loving people,” he added.